"I don't have to tell you that's a fire," said artist Julie Mehretu, pointing to "Hineni," a 10-foot-wide painting filled with orange and red bursts and enshrouded with the black-ink marks, swirls and jagged shapes that are a signature of her work.
The idea for this 2018 painting came from California's frequent wildfires and the burning of Rohingya homes during Myanmar's ethnic cleansing, while the title references a Leonard Cohen song: "Hineni" is Hebrew for "Here I am" — Moses' response when God called him to lead the Israelites to the promised land.
This layering of meaning with abstract imagery is typical of Mehretu, whose large-scale paintings often engage with architectural spaces, power dynamics, social unrest, injustice and more.
"Hineni" is just one of more than 75 works in a Mehretu exhibition opening this weekend at Walker Art Center. The drawings, paints and prints span the artist's quarter-century career, from 1996, when she was a graduate student at Rhode Island School of Design, to the present day.
Mehretu first started playing with mark-making in grad school. It happened by accident, when a printmaking class led her intuitively to this new language.
"Having to take everything and reduce it to the scale of a needle on a copper plate ... I started to be really conscious of marks," she said. "I started doing small drawings where each mark had a certain sense of behavior, and they started to resemble cityscapes, mapping, aerial views of maps."
Walker curator Siri Engberg sees a shift in Mehretu's vision over the years, from world-making and imaginary spaces to using abstraction as a way to confront the realities of the world we live in today, from the Iraq War to the Arab Spring to the disturbing photos that surfaced of kids in cages on the U.S.-Mexico border.
"That shift from the imaginary to lived experience, and to crises happening in our present moment, makes perfect sense when you think about the way that Julie has always used abstraction as an artist," said Engberg. "She uses complex ideas layered one atop the other."
This is the show's final destination after stops at LACMA in Los Angeles, the Whitney Museum in New York and the High Museum in Atlanta, winning praise from critics at every turn. (Mehretu just became only the third artist ever appointed to the Whitney board.)
In any given work, viewers should be prepared to look more deeply at the many layers present. Underlying the 2016 photogravure print "Epigraph, Damascus" are intricate drawings of structures that used to exist in Syria, upon which Mehretu has applied lines and drips of ink that look like the falling, exploding remains of once-straight lines.
From Ethiopia to Michigan
Mehretu came to the United States at age 5, fleeing the Ethiopian Revolution with her family and landing in the college town of East Lansing, Mich., where she grew up.
The Walker has special significance for her "because it's in the Midwest," said Mehretu, who won a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" at age 34. "When I was growing up, the Walker was the most amazing place to go."
Though she's been based in New York for many years, she has worked with the Walker since 2001, and with Highpoint Center for Printmaking in Minneapolis since 2004.
The museum first included her painting "Babel Unleashed" in a 2001 group show, "Painting at the Edge of the World," then hosted her first major solo exhibition two years later. "Drawing Into Painting" featured her now-familiar layered paintings combining abstraction with architectural forms from the ancient Roman Colosseumto international airports.
Engberg subsequently oversaw the commission of two limited-edition prints that Mehretu produced at Highpoint. Coincidentally, Mehretu's work is part of a Highpoint retrospective that just opened at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
"She is one of the most well known and respected artists working today, up there with Gerhard Richter," said Highpoint artistic director and master printer Cole Rogers, who is currently working on a new project with Mehretu and the Walker. "To be introduced to her at such an early part of her career was amazing. … I didn't know at the time how hot she was getting. I just knew that I loved the work."
When: Oct. 16-March 6.
Where: Walker Art Center, 725 Vineland Place, Mpls.
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Thu., 11-6 Fri.-Sat., 11-5 Sun.
Admission: $2-$7.50, free for 18 and younger and for all Thursday nights.
Opening party: 8:30 p.m. Fri., $20, free for members.
Artist talk: 4 p.m. Sat. in Walker Cinema. Free tickets available at 3 p.m. or viewable via livestream.
Protocol: Masks encouraged in galleries. Required in cinema and McGuire Theater along with proof of vaccination or negative COVID test.
Info: walkerart.org or 612-375-7600.